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If you’re someone who enjoys the festive period and visiting Walt Disney World at this time of year, then “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights” will be at top of your list of “Must Do’s.”
Sadly, after a 20-year run, this year will be the final time that you’ll be able to see the display as Disney announced in September that it would pull the plug on the Osborne lights to prepare for new areas for “Star Wars” and “Toy Story.” Come January 3rd the lights will shine for the final time.
With this in mind, we took the opportunity to say “goodbye” to the lights this week and so it seems did many thousands of people who crammed into Disney’s Hollywood Studios to enjoy the spectacle.
It was in 1995 that the Studios became home to the lights after Arkansas businessman, Jennings Osborne, was court ordered to discontinue his elaborate display on his own property.
The story behind the lights is quite fascinating.
Osborne came from humble beginnings and followed the American Dream. Born in September 1943, he earned a degree in microbiology before opening a prescription drug testing laboratory, Arkansas Research and Medical Testing LLC, in 1968 that grew to become one of the premier human-trial research facilities in the industry. The business earned him a size-able fortune of approximately $50 million.
He began his annual display in 1986 at the request of his daughter, Allison Brianne, who was born after his wife, Mitzi’s fifth miscarriage. Allison was nicknamed “Breezy” and she was to be an only child who desperately wanted to spend more time with her workaholic father. The lights were the one way the whole family could spend time together and initially, the display was a modest one… by all reports, it was somewhere in the region of just a thousand lights.
The family then discovered a passion to improve their annual display and over the years the collection grew and grew so much so that Mr. Osborne purchased two adjacent homes to accommodate everything. At its peak, it included a huge illuminated globe with Little Rock and Bethlehem marked, two rotating carousels featuring some 70,000 lights placed on each end of the estate’s circular driveway, a flashing Santa sleigh and a flickering 70-foot Christmas tree with some 80,000 lights in three colored layers that was erected on top of the family’s 22,000-square-foot home. The display reportedly burned so brightly that pilots confirmed that they could see the home from 80 miles away!
By 1993, a full time engineer was required to oversee the display that now had over three million lights and was lit for 35 days during the Christmas season, from sunset to around midnight every day. It was rumored that the December utility bill for the lights at the Osbourne family home was similar to the average annual bill for all the citizens of Little Rock.
Trouble was just around the corner though, as local residents were becoming agitated by the number of visitors the lights were attracting and they were far from amused the day when Jennings flipped the power switch and blew the breaker for the entire neighborhood.
For the people who lived on Robinwood Street and Cantrell Road, the entire situation was becoming a nightmare. A normal five minute trip to the grocery store was becoming a two hour ordeal and they also claimed that they had to purchase thicker drapes and shades to reduce the glare caused by the millions of Christmas lights. Additionally, due to the high level of traffic, it was becoming impossible for first responders to be able to navigate to an emergency situation should one arise.
The situation escalated despite the fact Osborne put in a transformer for the lights to have their own system. He maintained he was paying for everything himself, the lights were on his property and that he felt he’d done everything he could to appease his neighbors. He was adamant that his daughter would continue to enjoy her Christmas lights.
In the end, half a dozen residents in the local neighborhood filed suit against Jennings Osborne. They asked the court in Pulaski County to file an injunction. The court ruled against the Osborne’s although they did try to find a compromise. He could keep the lights on as long he limited the event to 15 days and kept to a strict schedule. Osborne could operate the festivities from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Osborne was annoyed by this decision but after his attorney’s found a legal loophole of paying a $10,000 fine the lights stayed on. For a little while.
After only three days, his neighbors pointed out to the court that the entrepreneur had violated the terms. The actual legal documents make for interesting reading as Osborne was found guilty of contempt of court and given fines of $500.00 for each violation that occurred on December 17, 18, and 19 as well as sentenced to ten days in the county jail, with ten days suspended. Osborne was also ordered to pay $7000.00 in legal fees.
Osborne then appealed to a higher power, the Arkansas State Supreme Court but the highest court in the state refused to negate the lower court ruling. Osborne’s lawyers then went to the United States Supreme Court arguing the display celebrated the family’s Christian faith. Unfortunately, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rejected the claim stating that the light show infringed on the rights of the Osborne’s neighbors.
This then left Osborne a problem. What to do with the lights and other Christmas paraphernalia?
Some of it ended up being donated to the city of Little Rock but it wasn’t long before news organizations across the country picked up the story of how Osborne had been sued for his holiday display.
It wasn’t long before the people at Disney took notice.
Desperately in need of something to liven up the holiday festivities at Disney-MGM Studios, Disney assigned Bruce Laval and John Phelan with the task of finding a new Christmas attraction. Laval was a vice president at the Walt Disney Company and he had spotted the story first. Being extremely busy he asked Phelan to contact Osborne and see if something could be done.
Jennings, Mitzi and Breezy were huge Disney fans and being wealthy had visited the parks many times. The close-knit family adored the place and this seemed like a ready made solution to the problem of just how to display the lights despite offers from numerous other cities to host them.
Osborne was intrigued by the offer, but initially he understood that Disney wanted to put the display on another residential street in Orlando. Something he wasn’t too happy with, but when he discovered that Phelan was actually offering to install the display on “Residential Street,” a back-lot tour section at Disney-MGM Studios theme park, he accepted the offer.
In 1995, the display was set up on Residential Street as “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights,” becoming an immediate success. The street scene had been a part of the theme park since it opened in 1989 and it featured facades of buildings constructed as backdrops for film production.
There was no upfront cost to Disney as the already rich Osborne clan had no real need for money. All they wanted was to vacation at Walt Disney World over the holidays to visit their lights and the company agreed to host them free of charge onsite whenever they wanted during the holiday season.
After the move to Florida, Disney continued to add to the light count and constantly added new pieces to the collection… so much so that the display now features over 5 million lights! The addition of Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show resulted in the closing of Residential Street, which, in turn, moved the displays to their current spot in 2004. As part of the move, the Studios added an artificial snow effect to the display, made up of 33 snow machines that use 100 US gal (380 L) of fluid per evening.
The lights require 800,000 watts of electricity and in 2005, Sylvania agreed to become the presenting sponsor of the lights, helping to offset the cost of running the show.
In 2006, the lights began to be choreographed to music as the park added over 1500 dimmer relay circuits and control switches to the display to enable the lights to dim on and off electronically.
The display is now made up of over 10 miles of rope lighting connected by another 30 miles of extension cords. The extension cords and lights are held together using two million ties. In all, it takes 20,000 man-hours to install the display each holiday season, starting in September.
In 2011, the display had a major overhaul as all the lights were swapped out for LED lights including all of the rope-light. During this overhaul the lighting control was updated to a “state of the art” entertainment lighting system using light control boards from the company Light-O-Rama. This meant that all the previously choreographed dancing sequences had to be redone. With all these updates the production team wanted to change one more major element to the display, the canopy. The canopy in previous years was all red and separated in only 8 circuits, 4 on each side; now each light has 3 completely controllable LEDs (Red, Green, Blue) giving the canopy an almost video-like appearance. Now the canopy has 21,600 pixels capable of over 16 million colors.
Whenever a choreographed song is played the lights “dance” to the music and after each performance, the lights remain steady for about seven minutes before “dancing” again to another selection. Other holiday selections play during the intermissions, along with recorded “live” segments from a fictional radio station (with Arnie and Anne) and visits from Disney characters. The dancing segments cycle roughly every 40–60 minutes.
The display has several “Hidden Mickey’s” and a hidden cat. The story of the cat is amusing as it was originally a Osborne family Halloween decoration that somehow slipped into the family’s Christmas lights by mistake. Disney decided to use it anyway and now, every year, Disney guests and their families hunt for the Osborne Family Cat, usually hidden in a different spot every year.
For many years after the move to Disney, Jennings Osborne and his family could be seen enjoying the display. Sadly, on 27 July 2011, Jennings passed away from complications to the heart surgery he had in April that year.
Osborne was an innovator, a philanthropist, and an American original and right up to his death, he sponsored Christmas displays in more than two dozen towns across the country. He also decorated the Plains, Georgia, home of former president Jimmy Carter and helped pay for a lights display at Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis. Mr. Osborne’s magnanimity was also known beyond the holiday season as he sponsored fireworks shows every Fourth of July and hosted barbecue charity benefits in his back yard. He often covered funeral costs on behalf of poor local families and crime victims.
The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is included in regular admission to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and begins nightly around dusk and shuts off when the park closes, which varies daily. 3rd January will be a very sad day when the lights are turned off for the final time and millions of people will miss them in 2016. We can only hope that Disney will find a way to display them in the future. Treasures and traditions like this desperately need to continue.
Guests can participate in the Merry & Bright Dessert Party (Now until Dec. 30) and the Merry & Bright Dinner Reception (Jan. 1- 3). With the dessert party, Guest will enjoy holiday-themed desserts, specialty alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, sodas, water, tea and coffee, all while surrounded by the amazing light display. Each Guest in the party will receive a keepsake roll-up stadium blanket. The price is $69 per adult and $39 per child (ages 3-9). Tax and gratuity are included. The party will take place November 6 through December 24 from 7:00 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. and from December 25-30 from 8:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
During the Merry & Bright Dinner Reception, Guests can enjoy a holiday buffet including shrimp, beef, turkey and more, as well as specialty alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, beer and wine. Each Guest in the party will receive a custom keepsake shadow box featuring their own Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights bulb. The price is $99 per adult and $54 per child (ages 3-9). Tax and gratuity are included. The reception will take place on January 1 from 8:30 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. and on January 2-3 from 7:00 until 8:30 p.m.
To book call 407-WDW-DINE or book online at Disneyworld.com/dine.
More photos from Disney’s Hollywood Studios and The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights are here.